From Counsel to Counselor: A Brief Overview of the Legal Profession’s Relationship with Mental Health

People joke that being an attorney sucks the life out of you. And frankly, it does. There is a high mental and emotional toll on legal professionals. A 2016 survey from the American Bar Associationfound that “21-36% of lawyers qualify as problem drinkers, approximately 28 percent of lawyers are struggling with some level of depression, and approximately 19 percent are struggling with anxiety.” These rates are especially high among young lawyers in firms. A North Carolina studyreported that one in every four attorneys displayed symptoms that would indicate clinical depression, such as a loss of appetite, lethargy, insomnia, or suicidal thoughts. The percentage of legal professionals battling substance abuse is almost twice as highas the general population. The general attitude towards lawyers from both the public and the community itself is one of resignation: lawyers are workaholics, egotistical, soulless, etc. But what changes within the community can positively impact the wellbeing of legal professionals? Can improvements in the ways lawyers handle mental health shift public perception of the occupation? 

The environment inherent in the legal profession can have a lasting impact on anxiety and depression.Work in the legal profession includes time constraints, high stakes (loss of property, freedom, life), and high expectations from peers and clients. Deadlines never really end for lawyers; even when one case closes, many others open and there is always an impending due date. The perpetual threat of malpractice leaves no room for lawyers to make mistakes. The constant scrutiny, judgment, competition, and conflict-driven nature of the occupation obstruct the formation of professional relationships and camaraderie. Oftentimes these strains extend past the courthouse and into the personal lives of lawyers, such as a depletion of energy, an inability to stop worrying about the work, and the tendency to argue their point at any given moment. 

These factors are such an integral part of the profession that many of them begin to manifest even in law school. The effects of these pressures are felt by a majority of students at some point in their education. The Survey of Law Student Well-Being in the spring of 2014showed that 17% of law students experience depression, 14% experience severe anxiety, and 43% of students report binge drinking at least once in the last two weeks. These numbers are especially high among men and continue to climb with each year of law school. These statistics are staggering. They demonstrate that young professionals entering the workforce are already in the mindset that their mental health and well-being should take a backseat to their career, success, and work. 

The remedy is no quick fix; it involves community-wide changesto the culture and mentality of how to be a successful lawyer. To start, the profession must learn to acknowledge and recognize the mental health struggles facing many lawyers. Leaders should value well-being and act as role models—not only from a business perspective, but a personal one. By destigmatizing and encouraging open communication about the mental health issues faced by the community, people may start to feel comfortable asking for help when they are burned out or depressed. When firms stress billable hours as success, they encourage overtime and discourage a work-life balance, which is necessary in mental health. There are several well-being programs that can be introduced both in the firm and outside that build teamwork, camaraderie, and collegiality. For example, there is a Lawyer Assistance Program at the D.C. Bar that is free and assists those in the legal community with issues like addiction, stress, and mental health symptoms. 

The legal profession’s relationship with booze should also be reevaluated.Social events, meetings, job recruitment, and mentorship generally occur over the consumption of alcohol, even beginning as early as law school. Addiction prone lawyers may jeopardize their sobriety in order to attend networking and social events, under the pressure that these events are necessary for promotions and positive office relations. 

Lawyers are skilled in managing risk, but lawyers have repeatedly failed to recognize that their community is the one at risk. So, then, why is it so difficult for lawyers to recognize that their community is the one at risk? The current structure and culture leave no room for well-being or mental health. To ignore this problem any longer is to continue to put lawyers, clients, firms, and the profession as a whole in jeopardy.  

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